Science can help us adapt to climate change, but first we have to admit it is happening | Environment | The Guardian


    Talking to a fourth-generation grazier west of Townsville a few years ago, Prof Stephen Williams says he “made the mistake” of mentioning climate change.

    “He said it was bullshit, but we kept talking,” the James Cook University ecologist says.

    Later the grazier admitted the property was much more difficult to manage than in his great-grandfather’s time because “the weather has gone to shit”.

    That chat with the grazier, Williams says, is one example of a “social barrier” that gets in the way of Australians taking action on climate change.

    “One side of his personality denied climate change was real, yet he fully recognised the climate had changed.”

    Analysis from Australia’s now defunded National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility has ranked research priorities based on their urgency, cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility.

    The conclusion is that research into social barriers should be given the highest priority to help save the country’s ecosystems from climate change impacts.

    Williams was the co-ordinator of the facility’s natural ecosystem network, covering climate impacts on land, in freshwater systems and in the marine environment.

    The analysis, published in the journal Global Change Biology, drew on eight years of consultations with about 2,000 scientists and stakeholders, at more than 50 workshops.

    “They all recognised that the only way we were going to get anything important done was to get the whole of society on board,” says Williams, the lead author of the analysis. “Social barriers came out as the most highly ranked question to answer. There are all sorts of social barriers to us adapting to climate change.

    “Some are purely the psychological make-up of people that don’t want to acknowledge a problem, some of it is a government more interested in elections every three years, and some is the vested interests of industry that undoubtedly confuse the issues. They are all barriers.

    “We are a group of physical scientists and biologists,” Williams says, “but we came up with this reasoning that we need to do some social research.

    “We’ve had highest temperatures ever, and the longest and most intense heatwaves geographically, and we’ve had floods happening at the same time as the biggest drought, and have seen rainforests burning.

    “What’s the social resistance against something that is so in your face, yet people still want to stick their heads in the sand and deny it? It is the social barriers that are stopping us and it is incredibly frustrating.”

    Adaptation is going to be critical to Australia. Mitigation has to be global, but adaptation can be local

    Adapt to what’s coming

    Climate adaptation looks at ways to reduce the impacts of climate change that are unavoidable, and is distinct from mitigation, which focuses on reducing emissions.

    “Climate change mitigation is about avoiding the unmanageable,” says Dr Alistair Hobday, a research director at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere and a co-author of the analysis.

    “Adaptation is about managing the unavoidable. Adaptation is going to be critical to Australia. Mitigation has to be global, but adaptation can be local.”

    Hobday says that as well as understanding why some might see climate change as a lower priority, another barrier is public resistance to translocating species that are not able to adapt or move as temperatures and rainfall change.

    “These are situations where people resist doing something despite the evidence that the animal’s world is changing,” he says.

    The only example of a project like that in Australia is a pilot study that has moved 35 captive-bred western swamp turtles to new sites in south-west Western Australia.

    Prof Lesley Hughes, of Macquarie University, and also an author on the analysis, says there has been resistance to “interventions” like translocation, but this needs to change.

    Despite 30 years of research looking at how climate change would affect habitats, she says, very little work has been done to protect species.

    Other priorities identified by the analysis are to make environmental and planning laws more proactive, and to improve understanding of the effects of extreme events on ecosystems.

    NCCARF was launched in 2008 with $47m of federal government funding over five years, and then a further $8.8m to 2017. A final $300,000 of funding ran out in June 2018, and the facility is now vastly scaled-down and operating through Griffith University.

    Williams says it is “frustrating” that NCCARF has not received continued funding when it has built a foundation of research that could be exploited.

    “We had got to the stage where in the next five or 10 years we were really going to start to achieve things, and that’s when it got chopped.”

    This content was originally published here.


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